FIM SPEEDWAY STARS OF THE CENTURY | TONY RICKARDSSON
The Speedway GP era has produced some of the sport’s all-time greats, but none of them have won more world titles than Swedish icon and FIM Speedway global ambassador Tony Rickardsson.
The Avesta-born legend raced and innovated his way to a record six FIM Speedway World Championships. His Cardiff wall of death, F1-style motorhome and speedway showmanship took the sport to the next level.
And now TR is helping the next generation of stars as the founding father of the brand-new FIM SGP4 project – an entry-level championship aimed at riders aged 11-13 launched alongside global promoter Warner Bros. Discovery Sports and the FIM.
PAUL BURBIDGE caught up with him ahead of Saturday’s DeWalt FIM Speedway GP of Poland – Torun …
Well Tony, it’s 18 years since you won your sixth and final FIM Speedway World Championship, but your run as Sweden’s most recent world champion could end on Saturday.
Polish icon Bartosz Zmarzlik heads into the DeWalt FIM Speedway of Poland – Torun with a six-point advantage over Fredrik Lindgren. Can Freddie end Sweden’s wait for a Speedway GP world champion?
“He has nothing to lose really. From Freddie’s point of view, he just has everything to win in Torun. That’s sometimes a lot easier as a rider compared to what Zmarzlik has to do.
“Of course, Zmarzlik is already defending the title, but he had it in the bag and suddenly there was a hole in the bag, the title fell out of it, and they are racing for it again. Who would have thought that a couple of weeks back?!
“I am sure Freddie will just go there to put himself in the best position possible and try to win the meeting. That’s what he has to do. Then he just has to hope Zmarzlik doesn’t make the final.
“This is the opportunity he has been waiting for and Freddie has had a long, tough career. I think he is just going to go for it. Who knows? I think he has a pretty good chance actually.”
How much would a Lindgren Speedway GP world-title win lift Swedish speedway?
“It would be just awesome for Swedish speedway if we had Freddie as world champion. It will help to create the interest we need to get speedway kick-started again here in Sweden. In that sense, I am really hoping Freddie can win the title. If we had a world champion like Freddie, I am sure he would be a great ambassador for the sport.”
You certainly put speedway in the spotlight during your racing days, but how did it all begin? How did you get interested in speedway?
“I come from a motorsport family. My father Stig was a former motocross rider and I have a brother, who is eight years older than me – Kent. He also rode speedway.
“I liked all kinds of sport. I played everything – tennis, ice hockey, table tennis, you name it. I was all into sport when I was young. But I always had motorsport around me in the family.
“When my father stopped riding motocross, he started to make everything – like speedway frames, speedway engines, ice racing frames and motocross bikes. He loved to invent new stuff. My brother and I became test pilots for some of his crazy projects, so I grew up in a workshop really.
“My father built everything in the garage under the house. I rode his frames long into my 500cc times. He just bent up the tubes and welded them together in the workshop. My dad was always heavily involved with my engines.
“If I wanted to hang with my dad and my brother when I was younger, it was in the workshop. When Kent started youth speedway, I was there cheering for him, seeing what he was doing, and I learned a lot from him.
“During every breakfast at the weekend and during every dinner during the week, we talked speedway. I feel sorry for my mother, who had to sit and listen to us talk about engines, how to ride a speedway bike, what was working and what was not.
“That was the environment I grew up in. I had my first bike before I even had a bicycle. When I was eight or nine, I got my first homemade youth bike, which I took along when my brother was riding.
“It was a great environment to grow up in because a lot of the focus was on my brother. Even when I started my youth racing, all the focus was on him because he had just stepped up to the big bikes. My dad unloaded my bike and gave me a can of petrol, and I was looking after myself on the training track on the infield.
“I was there waiting and when my brother rode out on the big track, I always started up my bike and I raced him on the small track in the middle. I remember annoying him so much – after every practice, I would say, ‘I beat you!’ because I was quicker around the small infield track than he was around the big track! I have always been really competitive with him, and I think he hated it.
“He taught me how to ride a speedway bike in my younger years, even if I was the kind of boy who thought I knew best. But when I was in trouble, he always taught me new techniques.
“My brother was the first one to help me into a club when I was 15 and I moved up to the big bikes. He rode for a club in Stockholm, and he helped me to get a contract with that club. We always travelled together, and we rode in the same team for years. I started off as a reserve and he was in the team.
“I have so much to thank my big brother and my father for, for all the help and guidance they gave me early on in my career.”
Who were your heroes when you followed speedway as a child?
“When we didn’t sit around the dinner table and talk speedway, I watched it on TV. This was around the time when VHS recorders were launched, and we were one of the first in the neighborhood to have one.
“I remember we had the 1981 World Final recorded and I watched it every day when I came home from school – every day for I don’t know how many years. I remember every word the commentators said from that World Final, when (American icon) Bruce Penhall won at Wembley. Bruce really was my big idol when I was a kid.
“There was so little media at the time. I didn’t have Speedway Star magazine and I couldn’t read English. There were no papers covering speedway at the time. It was only once a year that they showed speedway on Swedish TV – that was the World Final. You could watch speedway on TV for two hours per year in Sweden!
“Luckily, we recorded that 1981 World Final, and it was just Bruce’s riding style that I loved. He had two epic races with (Danish stars) Tommy Knudsen and Ole Olsen. In those days, you rarely saw a rider pass someone around the outside. He did it both times – inside and outside. I had never seen a rider do anything like that. It was just unbelievable. He was my hero from that time.”
You won your first Swedish Championship at the tender age of 20 in 1990 and then FIM Speedway World Championship silver in Gothenburg in 1991. Did you expect things to progress so quickly in your early years?
“To answer that, I need to reverse back a year or two. I went to a training camp in England in 1988 or 1989 with my Swedish club. I was really hoping to make an impact there to try and get a contract in England.
“I have been driving ever since I turned 18 and I took the car over with my girlfriend. We lived in the car there for a week or two and I tried to ride in second half meetings to show off and hopefully get a contract, but nobody was interested in me at the time.
“I had to go back home again without any contract proposals from any British clubs. In those days, the only chance to turn professional was to ride in Britain, and that’s all I wanted.
“When we were taking the boat home from Harwich back to Gothenburg, my old trainer told me: ‘When you come home, I think you should sell all your speedway bikes and start to play ice hockey again because you’re never going to make it in speedway.’
“I was sad about that for a while, but then I thought, ‘No, I am really going to show him what I can do in this sport.’ This is something that followed me throughout my career. I really wanted to prove him wrong. Luckily, I did. That was really the start of things changing.
“It sounds fantastic, winning the Swedish Final in 1990 when I was 20. But to be fair, I wasn’t really a worthy Swedish champion at the time. I was probably the third or fourth best rider at my local club in Stockholm. But I was riding at a very good club. We had Per Jonsson, Jimmy Nilsen, Erik Stenlund etc.
“The track conditions for that Swedish Final suited me really well. It was raining and the track was really rough. Per came home as the reigning world champion, but I just had a great meeting.
“Up until then, I had never actually ridden for Sweden in a test match. I had never been selected. But after winning the Swedish title that night, I got selected for the Swedish team that went to Australia for a tournament that winter.
“These meetings were shown on TV, and I did quite okay in the test matches against Australia. When I came home, I had a call from British clubs Coventry and Ipswich to join them. I opted to go to Ipswich, which was great.
“Ipswich promoter John Louis took really good care of me in my first year in England and obviously I was riding with his son (former world No.3 and now Speedway GP commentator) Chris Louis, who is a great friend of mine. He also helped and looked after me really well.
“In those days, you had to choose whether you raced in the qualifiers for the World Under-21 Championship or the World Championship. You couldn’t do both. I opted to try and qualify for the real World Final.
“I made it as the reserve for the semi-final. But then (British rider) Andy Smith got injured and I came into the line-up and qualified for the World Final, which was a little bit of a surprise.
“Nobody expected me to win a silver medal in Gothenburg. People were laughing before the meeting about what I was supposed to do. If you look in the history books, it looks fantastic. But to be honest, I was really overperforming at that age on these big occasions.”
You won your first FIM Speedway World Championship at Vojens in 1994 – the last-ever FIM Speedway World Final. The Speedway GP series was launched in 1995. How did you feel about the change from one-day World Finals to racing for the sport’s biggest prize over a series of rounds?
“I was really excited. It really felt like the sport was growing and there was going to be a change. The one-off World Final was a great night. But it was a great night once a year.
“I was hoping that the Grand Prix would be able to grow the sport. We would have more meetings around the world. I was excited for the Grand Prix.
“But if there had been a Grand Prix system in 1994, I would never have been world champion that year. Luckily it was a one-off World Final, and I peaked that night and won it. That was kind of the name of my game at that time. I could be very good on one occasion, but not over a whole year!
“I came into that World Final at Vojens with no expectations. It was a year when I had a lot of engine problems. It was just at the beginning of the time when the laydown engines came in. My bike kept blowing up all the time.
“Just a week or so before the World Final, I didn’t think I would do any good at all. But the engines stayed together. I was a little bit surprised to end up in the run-off with Craig Boyce and Hans Nielsen.”
There has never been a run-off for the Speedway GP World Championship gold medal. You were the last rider to win the world title in a run-off. What do you remember about that battle with Danish icon Hans Nielsen and Aussie ace Craig Boyce in Vojens?
“Hans won the toss for the run-off and could pick his favourite gate. I just had the same feeling Freddie Lindgren probably has now, ‘It’s going to be now or never!’
“Hans made the start, and I took a big sweep around the outside. I checked before the start and there was some really soft material right on the inside line coming out of bend four. I saw Hans drifting a little bit wide, so I cut back and hit that little piece of soft material.
“It just launched me past Hans and I won the title. It was unbelievable at the time. It still feels unbelievable. Beating Hans in Vojens was excellent.”
It took a few years until you won your first world title of the Speedway GP era, but then you won back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999. You did it again in 2001 and 2002. Did it take some time for you to adapt to the new Speedway GP format?
“It was new to all of us. We had to try to adapt and change our mindsets. I ended up second in 1995 – the first year of Speedway GP. Then I had, in my view, two bad years in 1996 and 1997. I still finished fourth in the championship.
“I think it was mostly mindset. I had a lot of crashes, and I was riding half injured in 1995, 1996 and 1997. In 1995, I broke my collarbone during the first heat of the last round in Hackney.
“I needed to secure a few more points to get the silver medal, so I kept riding with a broken collarbone. I remember laying in the hospital at the end of the year, thinking, ‘Man, I have a great desire to be world champion, but it cannot be this painful to become world champion.’
“Maybe I took a step back for a couple of years – just to get the hunger back. But in 1998, I was so, so prepared. I was really fit. I had upgraded my bikes and the whole organisation. I was ready for it. I was ready to take on the world.”
You became a real innovator in the Speedway GP paddock with your famous motorhome, the Formula 1-style headphones and the Rickardsson Racing team clothing all taking the sport to another level. What did you hope it would add to your game?
“To be honest, it was not necessary to have the big race truck, the big headphones or the nice teamwear we had. During 1997, I felt I couldn’t push much further with myself, but I felt if I could do something good for the sport, it would also be good for me.
“Something I wanted to do was lift the sport and the profile of the sport. It was more of a PR trick to have a big race truck. Trust me – you don’t get the bikes there any quicker with a big race truck!
“We had team costumes, and we painted all the toolboxes the same colour as the bikes and teamwear. We made the pits look really nice, and it was really to attract new people and lift the profile of the sport. Up until then, speedway in Sweden had a very low profile.
“There was this image of dirty mechanics with the cigarette in their mouths. That’s something I wanted to change and it’s probably something I am most proud of achieving. It lifted the sport, especially in Sweden, to the same profile as sports like ice hockey and football.
“I laugh at it now, but at that time, I believed speedway could be as big as Formula 1. I honestly believed that. I was aiming for the stars. I didn’t get there, but at the time, there was a feeling and a sensation that we were really going somewhere with the sport.”
Your efforts culminated in that phenomenal 2005 Speedway GP season when you equalled New Zealand great Ivan Mauger’s record of six world titles.
You did it with a record six SGP rounds from a possible nine, scoring 196 championship points – a total only matched by Danish racer Nicki Pedersen from 11 rounds in 2007. What took you to another level that year?
“It was a fantastic year, and I didn’t expect what happened. I hadn’t made many changes. I was riding the same bikes as the year before more or less. I was just in the zone.
“I had started to feel I was coming towards the end of my career. When it kind of landed in my head that this would be my last year in the sport, it kind of gave me some extra energy to give it a last push. I didn’t tell anybody. It was more for myself – that I knew 2005 would be my last year.
“It was just a fantastic year. You talk about the stats, but it could have been even better. I was leading the Swedish GP final in Eskilstuna up until the second or third lap when there was a crash and a re-run. I didn’t win the re-run. If I had won the re-run, it would have been seven Speedway GP wins in a row – going back to the end of 2004.
“It was actually Nicki Pedersen who stopped that. He went under Bjarne Pedersen and knocked him off in Eskilstuna. He got excluded and then Crumpy beat me in the re-run. But hey, you can’t complain!”
What had prompted you to consider quitting?
“I was drained, even if everything looked great with all these big race trucks. I also made a commitment to myself that I would always sit and sign autographs until the last person had got their autograph. I was doing so much media – not only in Sweden, but everywhere I went.
“I was tired. I was drained. I was done. I thought, ‘One more year and that will be it.’ I come to what my hero since I was a kid, Bruce Penhall, did. He retired when he was world champion in 1982. That had always been my ambition. I wanted to retire when I was at my best.
“I was having a fantastic year. Riding on the air fence at Cardiff summed it all up for me. That was actually the night when I told my race team that I was going to retire.”
Your first turn from the 2005 FIM Speedway GP of Great Britain – Cardiff final lives on in YouTube legend. Talk us through what was going through your mind when you were in the middle of that legendary wall of death in the final?
“To make the story short, I was aiming to bounce off the fence. I was planning to hit the fence, but I was only planning to bounce off it.
“As soon as I hit the dirt that was laying on the fence, it was just like one-to-one traction. It just pulled my arms so hard. The only thing I was thinking was, ‘If I shut off now, I will die.’ I would have flown over the fence and into the grandstand.
“Coming around and getting out of the corner, I was thinking, ‘Don’t get the footrest hooked on the air fence.’ We had an air fence all the way out then. The foot peg was literally millimetres off getting caught up in the air fence.
“It was the best feeling in the world when I made it. I was thinking, ‘Now I have done everything I wanted to do in speedway!’ I was so lucky this didn’t happen in a league meeting in front of 200 people – it was at Cardiff, in the final and I couldn’t have picked a better moment! I did it one time and never again!”
You did continue racing into 2006 and didn’t hang up your kevlars at the end of 2005 as planned. What prompted that and what finally convinced you to retire halfway through the 2006 campaign?
“The only thing I regret from my career was that I wasn’t strong enough to retire at the end of 2005. I got pushed by my Swedish club (Masarna) to continue. They had no replacement.
“But I wasn’t there in 2006. I wasn’t there mentally to ride a speedway bike. The energy had gone.
“I had also had some bad crashes over the years. I have had a lot of concussions. I have had 16 concussions. During 2005, I had one. I had a rest for a week or two and came back and raced. I had a great meeting, but the next day, it was like I was concussed again.
“Then I realised, ‘Man, I am very close to doing something bad here.’ That’s why I wanted to retire. I didn’t want to leave the sport on a stretcher. I struggled with the after-effects of this for quite a few years after I retired.”
One big honour you received away from the track was the 2005 Jerring Award – Sweden’s equivalent of honours like BBC Sports Personality of the Year or the Przeglad Sportowy Polish Athlete of the Year prize. You are the only speedway rider to have won this. How much did that mean?
“Of course, I was riding speedway to become world champion and that was my main aim. Coming from motorsport, you hardly get invited into that group of sportspeople – it’s normally ice hockey, football, tennis or golf stars.
“Just to get invited to start with was great. Then the whole thing grew up and I became sportsman of the year in 2005. The shortlist is voted for by a committee and then the Jerring Award is voted for by all the Swedish people – they phone in to vote for you. It really is the people’s choice.
“I would say it’s the prize Swedish athletes hold the highest. To lift that in 2005 was amazing.”
In your final years in the sport, you started to make the move into car racing with the Porsche Carrera Cup in Scandinavia. How did you get involved?
“Early on in 2004 or 2005, I got an invitation to drive a VIP car that Porsche had. They were inviting different racing people – everyone from motorcycle guys to F1 legend Mika Hakkinen.
“We participated in the Scandinavian Carrera Cup, which was just starting up at the time. There were only eight cars in the field. I went there, drove the car and did one test day. Then I was straight into the races. I finished third and fourth in my races.
“The Porsche people said, ‘Wow! When you want to retire from speedway, give us a call. We will give you a works drive. We will get you a car and we will sponsor you.’
“Then I started to think I wanted to try a bit more car racing. During 2005, I told them, ‘I am ready to retire. Do you stick to your promise?’ They said, ‘Yes, absolutely!’ I went straight in to drive for Porsche. I did a three-year contract for them and was their ambassador in Sweden.
“The plan was to have a small setup with a car and a trailer. But then I had some other sponsors who came on board like Swedish Match, who sponsored me during my speedway career. I told them I was retiring, but when they heard I was going into the Porsche Carrera Cup, they asked if they could join. I said, ‘Of course!’ Swedish Match joined me as a sponsor together with Porsche.
“In the first year, I had a one-car team. Then in the second year, Martin Ohlin joined the team. I had a two-car team. I was looking after Swedish Match customers, catering for them during the weekends – we had between 100 and 150 guests per race event. The Porsche Carrera Cup was growing. We helped them with some TV rights. The class grew for year two and there were 30 cars on the starting line. It was getting televised and getting good media coverage.”
What else have you done with your time since you retired from speedway?
“During my time with Porsche, Swedish Match asked me to apply for a position that they had. I didn’t know much about it, but I did what they asked. I went through the whole process of applying for the job as area manager for Eastern Europe. I never thought I would get it. I didn’t understand why they asked me to apply for the job. It turned out there were two people left – me and another one. They chose me.
“In my third year as a Porsche driver, I was travelling around the world to see all our factory plants. At that time, Swedish Match was the second largest cigar producer in the world.
“On the day after my last race for Porsche, I started to work for Swedish Match on the Monday. I closed down the racing business and went full-on with that job. I stayed with Swedish Match for 14 years. I retired at the end of 2022.”
In 2021, you joined Warner Bros. Discovery Sports as global ambassador for FIM Speedway. How did your new role come about?
“Surprisingly, I didn’t get many calls about doing anything in speedway for a long time. I think it’s strange. I had just been working and this was really the first time I had got a serious call from a serious player to ask if I wanted to be involved somehow in the sport again.
“I said, ‘Yes, absolutely. I would love to.’ By that time, I had been working for a company that was on the stock exchange as an international area manager. This meant I had vast experience of the financial side of big business. It came at the perfect time for me. I took the chance with both hands. I wanted to be part of building something new in speedway.
“It was a really nice experience. My official title is that I am an ambassador for FIM Speedway. But obviously I chipped in some ideas and part of that is the youth programme – SGP4 – which I thought was essential for the sport’s long-term future. Warner Bros. Discovery Sports has been so supportive with that project.”
You played a key role in launching the FIM SGP4 project – designing a brand-new bike for the FIM Speedway Youth World Cup aimed at riders aged 11-13 to help them take their first steps on to the pyramid.
The first FIM SGP4 event took place at Swedish track Malilla on July 15, featuring riders from 11 different nations and four continents. How proud are you of the bike and the championship you have created for the sport’s youngest stars?
“I am more than happy. But it’s absolutely wrong to say the product I created. Of course, I put the bits together, but so many people have been instrumental in helping this project – there are too many names to list really.
“It has really been a huge team effort from very wise people – both old and young in different countries. They have all given a lot of input. I have been the one to collect all the data and input and put the product together. That has really been my job.
“What I have been doing with SGP4 is more or less what I have been doing when I was working as an area manager – putting a lot of data and information together, getting something done and making it happen. So many families looked after and tested the bikes. I had five bikes out there at one stage.
“Building the right product involved some important decisions. The parts for it needed to last for a long time, but they needed to be affordable. There needed to be trade-offs to get things to the right level. I could have built a super, super bike, but it would have cost €25,000.
“Really the aim was to produce a bike in small quantities, with a high-quality chassis and a strong enough engine that riders could slide it. I was very determined that it should be a four-stroke bike so that it actually rides as a big bike but in a small package. I think we have succeeded in that. I also wanted it to be cheaper than a motocross bike – that was also our aim, and we have succeeded in all these areas. That’s super good.
“As for the championship, I think it will continue to be a super nice family event, as we saw in Malilla. As we get more riders into it, the programme can be extended. We can have youth academies in different countries or training schools – and not only for the riders, but also for the parents. We can show them how to maintain bikes and how to help the kids avoid feeling too much pressure at a young age. I am super, super keen on this programme.
“And working with kids like we did in Malilla is my favourite part of the work. I just love it. I was just having a ball.”
Your legend lives on in FIM Speedway! Thanks for your incredible contribution to the sport, Tony, and thanks for sharing your story.